Last week we talked about meat inspection, which is based on wholesomeness and safety. Quality grade on the other hand, is focused on determining palatability; determining how tender, how juicy, and how flavorful you can expect the meat to be. While inspection is a legal requirement for all meat that will be sold and is supported by tax dollars, quality grade is optional and paid for by the packer. Whether or not quality grade is used depends on the goals of each operation.
Quality grade in beef is based on two factors:
Maturity: In order to qualify for the highest level of quality grade, the animal must be under 30 months of age. This is determined by dentition (how many teeth they have). As an animal gets older, the meat is known to become more tough and have a poorer color which is often seen as a turn off to consumers. Since the packer can choose whether to use grading, carcasses that are classified as older may be determined as a “No Roll”, meaning they won’t receive a ‘rolled on’ stamp for their quality grade. Much of the meat from this carcass will be ground for hamburger or used for jerky products, where the quality grade is not as important, rather than being used for steaks. *Important note: Even though it may not receive a quality grade, the carcass is still inspected to ensure that it is safe to eat. *
Marbling: The most important factor for determining quality is the level of marbling, or intramuscular fat (Fat that actually lies within the muscle). While cooking, this fat will melt into the meat, making it juicy, tender and very flavorful.
At the plant, the animal is ‘ribbed’, exposing the loin muscle. Here, USDA representatives from the Agricultural Marketing Service use a camera to determine the grade. Grades can range from:
- Prime: Young carcass, VERY high level of marbling. Meat should be very tender, juicy and flavorful due to the high levels of fat.
- Choice: Young carcass, Small to moderate level of marbling. This is the grade that is most often seen in the industry and ensures a tasty, tender product.
- Select: Slight level of marbling but still from a young animal. Meat in this category may still be very tender but will be less juicy than the grades above.
- Standard: Young animal but very, very little marbling.
- Cutter, utility, commercial: Low grades often from older animals, 100% safe to eat but may not make a tasty steak. It is rare to see these quality grades because carcasses that would fall into this section are often not graded.
The photo on the left shows a carcass with a select grade, while the one on the right shows a choice grade. Notice the differences in marbling, or specks of fat that lie within the muscle.
To wrap this up, inspection is a legal requirement to ensure meat safety. Quality grade is optional, but often used by packers as a method to inform consumers how palatable a product will be. Quality grade is determined primarily by how much marbling is in the loin muscle and signifies how tender, juicy and flavorful the meat will be!